Kinda mean, kinda true

I hit up “The Artistic History of Webcomics” at the Webcomics Examiner today (via Gabe). The article is basically a group of comics-knowledgeables discussing some of the most artistically influential webcomics. There’s some interesting stuff there, but one comment really struck me.

In the part about Fred Gallagher and Megatokyo, Shaenon Garrity writes the following:

And, yes, I’m a little baffled by its popularity. […]

The best explanation I can give is that Gallagher has tapped into things that a lot of American manga fans like about manga, and they’re not necessarily the same things that make manga popular in Japan. For a lot of Western otaku, Japan fills the same function as Middle-Earth or Starfleet or twelfth-century England does for other flavors of geek: it’s a fantasy world where everything is attuned to their desires and, if they could magically get there, they wouldn’t feel like outsiders anymore. In this Japan, nerds are the ruling class, video games and comic books abound, cutting-edge high-tech toys flood the streets, and everyone dresses in cool, crazy fashions. And, of course, hot teenage girls fight each other for the right to hook up with introverted geeks. This fantasy version of Japan is seductive to a certain young, tech-saavy, socially awkward but culturally aware type — the type that increasingly dominates the Internet. Megatokyo delivers the fantasy in full: it’s about two American fanboys who move to Japan and, aside from some early fish-out-of-water difficulties, discover that it’s exactly the way it’s depicted in manga.

She has a point.

There are a lot of people who say they want to live in Japan…and yet have never set foot in the country. And I don’t mean they say it theoretically, like, “Oh, it’d be nice to live there.” I mean they go so far as to make serious plans–and if they find themselves unable to make the move, to sigh wistfully about it all the freaking time. (While I am guilty of the latter, at least I have actually been to Japan.)

It scares me that people seem to think they understand Japan because they watch anime, read manga, and listen to the music.

I’ve noticed myself making assumptions about culture or language based on input from those media, and I always have to stop myself and put a little disclaimer tag on the thought in my brain: This is not fact. This is a guess, based not on actual experience but on observing a stylized product.

Not only that, but I’ve picked up quite a few phrases from anime that I surely shouldn’t use in polite company. In fact, I seriously wonder whether anyone would ever really say the things you hear in anime at all.

One of my Japanese language or culture professors at UK (sadly, I can’t remember if it was Inoue-sensei or Slaymaker-sensei) explained once that written works in Japanese are done in plain form, for efficiency if I’m remembering correctly. There are two main forms of the language, plain and polite. As you can guess, plain is more abrupt and familiar and is considered quite rude if used in the wrong context. Polite is typically more extended. Newspapers, novels, manga, and even anime (a visual art, but still one that is initially written) are therefore all done primarily in plain form.

In other words, the way an anime character says something may not be the way you want to say it, and if you base your understanding of the language solely on anime, you may be in for some problems. Or, as I put it to my friends once, “I’m going to get to Japan and start having conversations, and they’re going to think Why does she talk like a rude twelve-year-old boy?

It’s hard not to romanticize Japan, or certain aspects of the Japanese experience. I find myself very strongly attached to high school anime. Sports, dramas, shoujo romances, you name it…if it’s got seishun, I’m there. Sometimes it’s almost painful to remind myself that even if I do move to Japan, I’m not going to have that experience. I’m not going to be a Japanese high school student, and I will never be able to truly relate to those who have been. And, to be perfectly honest, high school life couldn’t possibly be as wonderful as it’s portrayed in anime.

The most dramatic example of the idealized high school experience that I’ve seen is a tragic series called Kimi ga Nozomu Eien. The series actually moves past high school and into an adult life that seems more like a trap than anything else. While it’s true that the central tragedy of the series is a large reason behind the dark tone of the characters’ adult lives, it’s also true that the characters’ situations would not have changed much if the tragedy hadn’t occurred. Once high school was over, the adventure would have been over too. The characters might have been happy, or happier at least, but Takayuki probably still would have gone on to a job in the same town, and Mitsuki would have had to give up swimming eventually and become an O.L. just like she did in the anime. The two both gave up college due to the tragedy, but even if they had gone I got the feeling that they would only have been delaying the inevitable: entrance into the workforce, and acceptance of drudgery for the rest of their days. Compared to that, their time in high school, with the excitement of dating and tests and after-school activities and the promise of an open future waiting for them to write their names on it…well, there really is no comparison. Kimi ga Nozomu Eien is about loss of innocence, and what better way to analogize than to present that stereotypical seishun and then snatch it away?

I feel, therefore, that anime invokes a good deal of nostalgia when presenting high school life (and life in general), and that this can (and does) give misguided impressions to people from other countries. This is, of course, not anime’s fault. Anime is an art form, not a cultural primer. And that’s what people, the people Shaenon Garrity’s talking about (and me), need to remember.